Saturday, August 4, 2007

Bill Clinton's Commencement Address to Harvard Class of '07

Here is an extract from Bill Clinton's address at Harvard in June. As you can see, it puts some of the big issues of our times in a positive perspective:
The simple idea that our differences are more important than our common humanity.

When the human genome was sequenced, and the most interesting thing to me as a non-scientist – we finished it in my last year I was president, I really rode herd on this thing and kept throwing more money at it – the most interesting thing to me was the discovery that human beings with their three billion genomes are 99.9 percent identical genetically. So if you look around this vast crowd today, at the military caps and the baseball caps and the cowboy hats and the turbans, if you look at all the different colors of skin, all the heights, all the widths, all the everything, it’s all rooted in one-tenth of one percent of our genetic make-up. Don’t you think it’s interesting that not just people you find appalling, but all the rest of us, spend 90 percent of our lives thinking about that one-tenth of one percent? I mean, don’t we all? How much of the laugh lines in the speeches were about that? At least I didn’t go to Yale, right? [LAUGHTER] That Brown gag was hilarious. [LAUGHTER]

But it’s all the same deal, isn’t it? I mean, the intellectual premise is that the only thing that really matters about our lives are the distinctions we can draw. Indeed, one of the crassest elements of modern culture, all these sort of talk shows, and even a lot of political journalism that's sort of focused on this shallow judgmentalism. They try to define everybody down by the worst moment in their lives, and it all is about well, no matter whatever’s wrong with me, I’m not that. And yet, you ask Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Bono to come here. Nelson Mandela’s the most admired person in the world. I got tickled the other night. I wound up in a restaurant in New York with a bunch of friends of mine. And I looked over and two tables away, and there was Rush Limbaugh [LAUGHTER], who’s said a few mad things about me. So I went up and shook hands with him and said hello and met his dinner guest. And I came just that close to telling him we were 99.9 percent the same. [LAUGHTER] But I didn’t want to ruin the poor man’s dessert, so I let it go.[LAUGHTER]

After George Bush and I did the tsunami, we got so into this disaster work that Kofi Annan asked him to oversee the UN’s efforts in Pakistan after the earthquake, which you acknowledged today, and asked me to stay on as the tsunami coordinator for two years. So on my next to last trip to Aceh in Indonesia, the by far the hardest hit place, a quarter of a million people killed. I went to one of these refugee camps where in the sweltering heat, several thousand people were still living in tents. Highly uncomfortable. And my job was to go there and basically listen to them complain and figure out what to do about it, and how to get them out of there more quickly. So every one of these camps elected a camp leader and when I appeared, I was introduced to my young interpreter, a young Indonesian woman, and to the guy who was the camp leader, and his wife and his son. And they smiled, said hello, and then I looked down at this little boy, and I literally could not breathe. I think he’s the most beautiful child I ever saw. And I said to my young interpreter, I said, I believe that’s the most beautiful boy I ever saw in my life. She said, yes, he’s very beautiful and before the tsunami he had nine brothers and sisters. And now they’re all gone.

So the wife and the son excused themselves. And the father who had lost his nine children proceeded to take me on a two-hour tour of this camp. He had a smile on his face. He never talked about anything but what the people in that camp needed. He gave no hint of what had happened to him and the grief that he bore. We get to the end of the tour. It’s the health clinic in the camp. I look up and there is his wife, a mother who had lost nine of her 10 children, holding a little bitty baby less than a week old, the newest born baby in the camp. And she told me, I’m going to get in trouble for telling this. She told me that in Indonesian culture, when a woman has a baby, she gets to go to bed for 40 days and everyone waits on her hand and foot. [LAUGHTER] She doesn’t get up, nothing happens. And then on the 40th day, the mother gets up out of bed, goes back to work doing her life and they name the baby. So this child was less than a week old. So this mother who had lost her nine children is here holding this baby. And she says to me, this is our newest born baby. And we want you to name him. Little boy. So I looked at her and I said through my interpreter, I said, do you have a name for new beginning? And she explained and the woman said something back and the interpreter said yes, luckily for you, in Indonesian the word for dawn is a boy’s name. And the mother just said to me, we will call this child Dawn and he will symbolize our new beginning. You shouldn’t have to meet people that lose nine of their 10 children, cherish the one they got left, and name a newborn baby Dawn to realize that what we have in common is more important than what divides us. [APPLAUSE]

And I leave you with this thought. When Martin Luther King was invited here in 1968, the country was still awash in racism. The next decade it was awash in sexism, and after that in homophobia. And occasionally those things rear their ugly head along the way, but by and large, nobody in this class is going to carry those chains around through life. But nobody gets out for free, and everyone has temptations. The great temptation for all of you is to believe that the one-tenth of one percent of you which is different and which brought you here and which can bring you great riches or whatever else you want, is really the sum of who you are and that you deserve your good fate, and others deserve their bad one. That is the trap into which you must not fall. Warren Buffett's just about to give away 99 percent of his money because he said most of it he made because of where he was born and when he was born. It was a lucky accident. And his work was rewarded in this time and place more richly than the work of teachers and police officers and nurses and doctors and people who cared for those who deserve to be cared for. So he’s just going to give it away. And still with less than one percent left, have more than he could ever spend. Because he realizes that it wasn’t all due to the one-tenth of one percent, and that his common humanity requires him to give money to those for whom it will mean much more.

In the central highlands in Africa where I work, when people meet each other walking, nearly nobody rides, and people meet each other walking on the trails, and one person says hello, how are you, good morning, the answer is not I’m fine, how are you. The answer translated into English is this: I see you. Think of that. I see you. How many people do all of us pass every day that we never see? You know, we all haul out of here, somebody’s going to come in here and fold up 20-something thousand chairs. And clean off whatever mess we leave here. And get ready for tomorrow and then after tomorrow, someone will have to fix that. Many of those people feel that no one ever sees them. I would never have seen the people in Aceh in Indonesia if a terrible misfortune had not struck. And so, I leave you with that thought. Be true to the tradition of the great people who have come here. Spend as much of your time and your heart and your spirit as you possibly can thinking about the 99.9 percent. See everyone and realize that everyone needs new beginnings. Enjoy your good fortune. Enjoy your differences, but realize that our common humanity matters much, much more. God bless you and good luck.

I think what I clipped above -- the last part of the speech -- was the most inspiring part. You can find the whole speech here.

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